Ever read a scripture passage so many times you felt like you could quote it forward and backwards? Ever felt like if you had to read it one more time you would go crazy? Alma 32. So why is my Book of Mormon now a half an ink cartridge heavier with markings and notations that weren’t there the last time I read this chapter? Go figure. Let’s start from the beginning.
The story setup
According to Mormon’s commentary on Alma’s story, the people that approached Alma with questions as he was teaching on the hill Onidah were not just poor in pocket, but poor in spirit, because of their exceeding poverty. He says this was because they were “despised of all men because of their poverty.” Of all people, it was their priests who had thrown them out of the very synagogues they had built with their own hands Why? Because they were considered “filthy” because of the lowliness of their clothing.
Mormon says that Alma, seeing how truly penitent they were, focused the rest of his preaching on them, and completely ignored those to whom he had been preaching. This begins a string of doctrinal pearls he drops in rapid succession. These people had been raised with the traditions of the law of Moses. They had all, at one time been familiar with the teachings Alma was now giving them, but they had dissented and physically separated themselves from the rest of the Nephite people so they could live their own version of their religion.
Alma reminds them that they don’t have to worship just one day a week, and that they don’t have to worship in a synagogue only (Alma 32:10-12). They have been compelled to be humble by their extreme poverty (verses 12-15). He reminds them that they are blessed because they are humble, but that it is more blessed to choose to be humble, “or rather in other words, blessed is he that believeth in the word of God, and is baptized without stubbornness of heart, yea, without being brought to know the word, or even compelled to know, before they will believe” (verse 16).
All of this discourse leads up to his famous talk on faith.
In order to easily discuss what is to follow, let’s get some definitions out of the way. Since the scriptures regularly use symbolic language to discuss spiritual things, let’s give some basic meanings to the symbolic words used.
The “word” generally means “the word of God” in a general sense. In this case however, it is specifically referring to the teaching that Christ is going to come to earth and redeem his people. This is the “word” Alma wants them to believe. One of the main tenets of the Zoramite religion was the denial that Christ would come. Alma’s discourse can also refer to anything that comes from God, but the acceptance of Christ is the word he wants them to believe in at the moment. In Alma 33 he sites three prophets who talked about worship, prayer and forgiveness that centered around the coming of Christ and his atoning sacrifice that would make forgiveness of sins possible. In Alma 33:23 he tells them, “I desire that ye shall plant this word in your hearts, and as it beginneth to swell even so nourish it by your faith. And behold, it will become a tree, springing up in you unto everlasting life.”
The seed Alma refers to is NOT faith. The seed is the belief in Christ he wants them to plan in their heart. Faith is what he wants them to exercise after they have chosen to belief in Christ. In the general sense, of course, the seed also refers to anything we choose to believe in. As you read through Alma 32-33 note that Alma expects us to use the experiment he is describing as a means to determine whether something we have chosen to believe is either based on truth or to identify that we have chosen to believe in something that is not based on truth. Those things not based on truth he tells us to throw away. This means that the experiment on his word is something that can also be applied to many things in our life to determine what comes from God and what doesn’t. If the seed (belief) we plant is good then it will change us for the better and we will be able to discern that it is good and that it has had an effect on our soul. More on this later.
Faith is sustained action based on the hope that what we have chosen to believe is true. That is my definition. Here is why I define it this way. If I choose to believe that Jesus is the Christ my friend is telling me about, Jesus being the Christ (Redeemer, Messiah, Savior, etc.) is the seed. But the seed in and of itself doesn’t do anything. I can’t be saved because I choose to believe that Jesus is the Christ. Salvation comes through life experience, not pure knowledge alone. Knowledge and experience must interact with each other to produce something greater than either of the separate parts.
When I choose to believe that Jesus can bring me eternal joy through his atoning sacrifice, I must do something to make it “real” to me. I must plant it in my heart, like you plant a seed in the earth. In other words, I must trust in the process of nature that if I do something with a piece of truth (a seed), that something discernable will happen that will confirm to my soul that what I chose to believe really is true, or good. This is what Alma means by being able to tell whether the seed we plant is a good seed. If the action of looking for a result, because of our acceptance of this knowledge as a true principle, produces a change in our soul then we have our proof that it is a good “seed.” In other words, what we chose to believe is a piece of truth. Real truth that we can count on to continue to bless our life forever. Truth is like a seed. Seeds, once fully grown, bless us with more seeds that can feed us forever. This is the nature of truth as well.
Based on what I just said in the preceding two paragraphs, faith requires we try or prove each seed of truth we choose to accept. Our hope that the truth will bless our life is what gives us the courage to test the validity or value of the truth we are planting in our soul. Faith is what sustains our hope. It is the conviction that eventually, the truth will demonstrate that it can change us. We need to remember that any seed we plant in the real world takes time to even begin to show signs of growth. Seeds are never an overnight sensation. All seeds take varying amounts of time to germinate and grow above ground, thus becoming visible.
Nature of faith
Faith is never the end product, for faith is the act of experimenting. The final product of any experiment is knowledge of some sort. Once we have knowledge, our faith, or the process of testing, comes to an end. Here is how Alma explains it in Alma 32:18, 26.
21 And now as I said concerning faith— is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye for things which are seen, which are true.
26 Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.
Once we have performed the experiment he is getting to in his sermon, we will have knowledge. But knowledge about our seed, or the truth we are being asked to believe, doesn’t yet exist in our soul. This is why we need to test it to see if it really works. The exercise of faith is how we combine knowledge with real-world experience to come to know something about God that we couldn’t have known before.
Alma lived in an agricultural society. Those who live off the land don’t put something in the soil without some sort of expectation that there will be specific results for that action. They fully understand the planting, cultivating, and harvesting cycle. Unfortunately, many today have had no experience with planting, so they are reasonably clueless to what happens when you are told to plant something. There is no life experience there for them to draw from that gives that action meaning other than “toss the seed on the ground and throw some dirt on it.” To them that is the sum total of the process. They don’t understand that there is a lot that goes into getting food from the small beginning we call planting.
Lucky for us, Alma walked us through the whole planting, nurturing, and harvesting process. Those to whom he was speaking at the time fully understood is references. Today’s city kids can only imagine what he is referring to in this passage. If you haven’t ever experienced gardening or farming, I encourage you to dive in and learn the hard way. Plant something that requires you to tend to it, water it, weed it, and fertilize it. When you finally get your first ear of corn from that cup of seeds you planted, or that trunkload of zucchini that came from that one seed you planted, you will have a better appreciation for the spiritual process Alma is talking about.
Let’s plant this seed!
Alma wants these people to learn for themselves that Jesus Christ will come, and that they can find joy by repenting of their sins, because of the sacrifices Jesus will make in their behalf. This is how it starts (Alma 32:27).
27 But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.
This verse has two important doctrinal points in it. The first one is that we don’t need much to begin to receive blessings from God. All we need is a “desire to believe” and this is enough to begin the experiment that will bring God’s blessings and open the windows of heaven for you to receive spiritual knowledge. But you have to be the one to decide it is something you want. There just aren’t any prerequisites. All you need is enough of a desire to do something about it.
The second doctrinal point in this verse is that all you need is enough belief, or desire to believe, that you are willing to do something to learn if this piece of knowledge (the seed) is true or good. The Lord doesn’t want this to be difficult. Anyone and everyone can do this much.
I would like to point out that Alma makes two separate points in this verse that could be mistaken to be the same thing. When he talks about exercising a particle of faith, that refers to being willing to do even the tiniest amount of work without a sign from heaven or proof beforehand that something is true. He then says that even if you can’t muster anything more than just a desire to believe, this can still work to help you learn for yourself. You just have to be willing to “give place for a portion of my words” or in other words, be willing to plant that seed in the fleshy tablets of your heart – your soil.
Verse 28 begins the process. Let’s look at it in parts.
28 Now, we will compare the word unto a . Now, if ye give place, that a may be planted in your , behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your , that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to my , yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
“if ye do not cast it out by your , that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord” Just as you had to choose to do the experiment to see if this piece of eternal truth is real, you can also choose to “cast it out” through deciding to not believe any longer. The experiment can only continue as long as you are willing to continue believing and continuing the experiment.
“it will begin to swell within your breasts” The promise here is that when we act on an eternal truth, we will be able to tell when it starts to have an effect in our life. We will feel it. This is why spiritual truth must be revealed to us. We couldn’t ever experience truth as God understands it if we aren’t willing to experience truth the way He does, and that is through life experience. All truth is learned to a certain extent through life experience, coupled with knowledge.
Notice that he says that when we recognize that something is taking place in our soul, it enlightens our understanding, and this understanding is delicious or pleasurable. As you think back on your own experiences with spiritual learning, what is one of the overriding emotions that accompanies spiritual learning? Isn’t it joy, happiness, or elation? This truly is delicious to our soul. This feeling we get when we discern that our life is changing because of what we are doing with this piece of spiritual information, is how we can know that the seed is good, for it is doing what all good does, it enlarges the soul and is delicious to us. That is the nature of goodness and truth.
Is it knowledge yet?
Yes, and no. Yes, you now know that the truth you are testing out is changing you, because you can feel that something is happening within your soul. But this is still just the seed, the beginning of knowledge. For example, to fully appreciate the mighty oak tree, you can’t look at the oak seed that has just begun to sprout and declare that you now have full understanding of the mighty oak. The seed is just in the beginning stages of growing into what it will eventually become. This is just like seeing a newborn baby. We may think it a wonderful thing, but we must wait for many years before that child will be fully matured and show us what it can really do and accomplish. All truth is like that.
If we do what has to be done for any seed, speaking now of actual seeds you put in the ground, we won’t have to wait too long before we can tell if they are worth keeping or if we need to move on to plan B. This same truth applies to learning spiritual truths. Each truth will require something of us in the form of action. If we do those things required of us, and we are still willing to believe that God can show us that this truth is real, we will eventually experience this swelling and sprouting sensation that tells us the truth we planted in our heart is good. If nothing happens then we need to look for something else to plant there.
That is all well and good, but just recognizing that something is good, as I mentioned before, isn’t enough to understand its full potential. That takes time and work. It also takes more faith. We have already exercised faith and had that faith proven to be correct, for we have experienced the truth changing us. But now that faith has gone dormant, for we have replaced it with knowledge of the nature of our “seed.”
What we now need is sustained faith that will last until the seed we have planted can grow and mature, and finally bear fruit. If this was a fruit tree, normally you would be waiting for a minimum of seven years before you got your first fruit. So this isn’t a quick thing, either in nature or in spiritual matters. Just as in nature, we planted the seed and saw that it came up, so now we transition into the long haul of watering, tending, weeding, protecting, and nurturing the plant along, having faith that someday it will produce fruit for us.
In spiritual matters, such as the question Alma was wanting them to consider – is Jesus real, is he coming, and will he perform an atonement for me so I can be forgiven of my sins? – all this takes time as well. Here is Alma 32:37-40.
37 And behold, as the tree beginneth to grow, ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us. And now behold, if ye nourish it with much care it will get root, and grow up, and bring forth fruit.
38 But if ye the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out.
39 Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your is , and ye will not nourish the tree, therefore ye cannot have the fruit thereof.
40 And thus, if ye will not nourish the word, looking forward with an eye of faith to the fruit thereof, ye can never pluck of the fruit of the .
Just because you have asked in prayer if Jesus is who he says he is, and God has answered you, it doesn’t mean you have a complete knowledge of what it means to live with that knowledge. You have only experienced the beginnings of an understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Christ. To more fully understand and accept this knowledge, you must now begin to study his life, read his word, live his teachings, and continue in prayer that God will lead you to do good so Christ can forgive your sins. This is the nurturing, watering, and fertilizing that must follow the initial experiment. This experiment will take years, but you will have periodic assurances that your trust is well placed, for the Spirit will teach you and guide you along the way, constantly reassuring you that your original seed was worth planting.
Only when we continue the experiment to grow what we originally planted can we hope that our truth will continue to mature, to “get root” and will eventually produce fruit. If we get to the end of the road and claim that the seed was bad and that it deserves to be torn out and tossed, we really need to take an honest look at ourselves first. Did we care for the truth we planted? Did we choose somewhere along the line to stop believing in it, letting it languish and die from neglect? If we knew at one point the truth was a good seed then nothing can change that fact later on. A good mango tree doesn’t morph magically into a nasty Virginia Creeper vine just because we stopped believing in our desire to have a mango someday. The mango seed was good. It was me who changed and killed the seed, not that the nature of the seed changed.
Again, referring to the seed Alma wanted these people to plant, that Jesus is the Christ, and that he would come to save them from their sins, here are his words in Alma 32:41-43.
41 But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with , looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree unto everlasting life.
42 And because of your and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.
43 Then, my brethren, ye shall the of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth unto you.
Too often, faith is thought of as something nebulous and undefined. Yet we are all supposed to have lots of it and live by it. Kind of hard to do when you can’t define it. At first, faith is the willingness to live according to a truth you are learning until you have proven that it is a good seed. You will know when you have finished your experiment on that truth when you feel that your heart or soul is changing because of the actions you took to learn the truth about that principle or doctrine. It is then that you change to long-term faith to see what that truth grows into as you continue to nurture it in your life and nurse it to grow and become what it has the potential to become.
This is where many of us are confused. We seem to think that we exercise faith like we work out a muscle. When we work a muscle we stress it for a short while then let it rest for days to let it heal before stressing it again. Faith isn’t like that. Faith is like vision or hearing, it is something we use every day, all the time. Faith is supposed to become a guiding part of our life. We exercise or use faith every time we choose to be obedient to the commandment, to be kind to someone, to pray, or to go to Church.
Faith is a principle of power because it is the action we apply to our hope in eternal truths. We pray because we have faith in God’s mercy and forgiveness, and His love. We are kind to others out of gratitude for God’s kindness to us. We keep the commandments because we are trusting that they will continue to bring us joy. Faith isn’t a one time experiment, it is our lifestyle. We will be using faith in the future to frame our own worlds, so now is the time to see how much action we can put behind what we have chosen to believe. Faith, without action, doesn’t really exist at all.
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